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Viva Mexico! Vivan Los Maestros!

Mexico City

While President Enrique Peña Nieto gave the annual Viva Mexico! from the National Palace Sunday night, alternative “cries of independence” rang out around the country, not least at the capital’s Revolution Monument where striking public teachers evicted from the main square threw their own fiesta alongside journalists and activists.

Hundreds of federal police entered Mexico City’s historic downtown Friday to forcibly remove members of the National Coordinating Committee of Education Workers (CNTE), camped in the Zocalo plaza to protest a controversial education reform. A confrontation had been building for weeks as the teachers responded to government indifference with expanded strikes and further marches.

The Zocalo looked almost apocalyptic as riot cops stomped through a largely-abandoned tent city, and enormous rainclouds – courtesy of tropical storms Manuel and Ingrid – gathered overhead. The scenes didn’t mesh with the rosy image of a “democratic” Mexico that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) administration has been pushing since it took office in December.

Mexican Independence Day is as loaded with hype, myths of history and fake patriotism as its US equivalent. Beyond the fact that it was ultra-conservative criollos that won independence for Mexico, President Peña Nieto’s ceremony in the Zocalo Sunday was fleshed out by busloads of well-fed supporters from his native Mexico State. Hours earlier, teachers, students and activists had marched to protest Friday’s repression.

It was a rain-soaked holiday weekend as storms lashed both of Mexico’s coasts, leaving dozens dead in states like Guerrero, Oaxaca and Veracruz. These impoverished, low-lying regions of the country are also home to many of the tens of thousands of teachers who have blocked airports, highways and several state capitals in recent weeks.

Don’t Teach, Resist!

The teachers belonging to the “dissident” CNTE union mainly hail from central and southern Mexico, parts of the country likely to be most affected by the new education reform. While they don’t oppose changes to the public education system as a whole, they point out that the one-size-fits-all reform passed this month is unfair; it fails to take into account the different challenges facing rural and indigenous communities.

CNTE leaders met with Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong on Thursday to negotiate an end to the month-long occupation of the Zocalo ahead of the national festivities. The majority of the teachers left the downtown Friday morning; those that stayed were joined by youths wielding sticks, pipes and Molotov cocktails – the usual mix of paid infiltrators and wannabe anarchists. Police deployed tear gas and water cannons.

This being a “class thing”, public opinion has been split down the middle on the teacher strike. State education in Mexico has a dire reputation as it is, and the CNTE have been wrongly thrown in with the notoriously corrupt National Union (SNTE). Yet following the police raid on the teachers’ camp Friday, many people have come out in support of the maestros, viewing the eviction as not only a crackdown on the CNTE but a sign of things to come under Peña Nieto.

Authorities announced just 31 arrests during the raid; a lawyer representing the CNTE has since cited nearly a hundred. Photos have circulated of bloodied teachers, journalists and bystanders. As the day unfolded, students from the National Autonomous University (UNAM) and members of the Electricity Workers’ Union (SME) – who also occupied the Zocalo in 2011 – mobilized in support. Independent journalists followed alternative video streams to avoid the biased coverage coming from TV giants Milenio and Televisa.

Black Hawk helicopters swooped over the city’s downtown while the Army gathered in the shadows. While few injuries were reported, this was a potent show of state power that arguably eclipsed the traditional Independence Day military parade for sheer spectacle.

We know the spiel by now. If this were Venezuela, it would be a case of a “socialist” regime cracking down on democracy. But it’s Mexico, so this is “democracy” cracking down on rowdy leftists.

Following the eviction, the teachers retreated to the Revolution Monument just outside Mexico City’s downtown where supporters brought food, blankets and medical supplies, and an alternative Viva Mexico! was held Sunday night. Union leaders claim they will return to the Zocalo on Wednesday. The city government has vowed to prevent them from doing so.

Viva el PRI!

These have been the largest public protests to shake Mexico since President Peña Nieto won a fraud-drenched election in July 2012. The PRI, of course, is no stranger to suppressing popular dissent. As columnist Cesar Alan Ruiz Galicia wrote in national daily La Jornada on Saturday, the party’s tactic for controlling social movements during its 71-year rule could be summed up as: “Marginalize, co-opt, threaten and repress.”

With his movie star looks and soap actress wife, Peña Nieto was brought in to put a new face on the party after its twelve-year absence from power. His administration has thus far been defined by an ambitious neoliberal reform agenda. Labor, education and banking reforms have already passed; energy and fiscal reforms are next in line. Each one has been met with resistance and there will be plenty more to come.

For all the hype about Mexico’s economic resurgence and booming middle-class, even studies by the OECD and World Bank show a widening wealth gap that the new reforms are almost certain to exacerbate. 50% of the workforce toils in the informal sector; over 8 million young people neither study nor have jobs. It’s very much a case of the “Two Mexicos” – the haves and have-nots – going head to head.

What started out as a strike over education reform is likely to blossom into more general protests against both inequality and the heavy-handed response from the Peña Nieto administration. In that sense, the protests in Mexico can be seen as cousins of the recent demonstrations in Spain, Egypt, Turkey and Brazil – saying no to neoliberalism and the accompanying suppression of dissent.

Paul Imison is a journalist based in Mexico City. His book, Blood and Betrayal: Inside the Mexican Drug Wars, will be published by CounterPunch / AK Press next fall. He can be reached at: paulimison@hotmail.com.

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